The Willows, Part 4 of 4

A horror story in 4 parts

By Algernon Blackwood

Adapted to chat story format by Captivated Chat

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Me
But you really think a sacrifice would solve our problem? Thanks a for another of your super scary ghost stories—
Swede
If we can hold out through the night, we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered.
Swede
Wait! The gong-like humming just came down very close over our heads as you spoke. Hush! They’re nearby!
Swede
Do not mention them or refer to them by name. The name is the inevitable clue, so our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us.
Me
Even in thought?
Swede
Especially in thought. Our thoughts make something like spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds. Here, rake the fire.
Me
Certainly. I have never longed for the sun as I long for it now in the awful blackness of this summer night.
Swede
Were you awake all last night?
Me
I slept badly a little after dawn, but the wind, of course—
Swede
I know. However the wind won’t account for all the noises.
Me
Then you heard it too?
Swede
The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard, and that other sound—
Me
You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something tremendous, gigantic?
Swede
It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?
Me
Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been altered—had increased enormously, so that we should have been crushed.
Me
And that gong overhead. What do you make of that?
Swede
It’s their sound. It’s the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division between us here is so thin that it leaks through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you’ll find it’s not above so much as around us. It’s in the willows. It’s the willows themselves humming.
Me
I could not follow exactly what you meant by that, yet the thought and idea in my mind are beyond question the thought and idea in yours.

I realized what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. Then he suddenly thrust his face again close into mine across the firelight and began to speak in a very earnest whisper. He amazed me by his calmness and pluck, his apparent control of the situation. This man I had for years deemed unimaginative, stolid!

Swede
Now listen, we’ll go on as though nothing had happened, follow our habits; pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don’t think, for what you think happens!”
Me
All right, all right, I’ll try, but tell me one more thing first. What do you make of those hollows in the ground, the sand-funnels?
Swede
No! I dare not, just dare not put the thought into words. If you have not guessed, I am glad. Don’t try to. They have put it into my mind; try to prevent their putting it into yours.
Me
I will not press you to explain. There is already just about as much horror in me as I can hold. Please be qui-I —

I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course, heard it too—the strange cry overhead in the darkness—and that sudden drop in the air as though something had come nearer.

He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me. The terror had caught him at last.

Swede
After that close call, we must go! We can’t stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on—down the river.
Me
In the dark? That’s madness! The river’s in flood, and we’ve only got one paddle. Besides, we only go deeper into their country! There’s nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows, willows!
Swede
What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?
Me
It is all right, my friend. You will soon be eating roast beef in London with me and we will laugh at this all.
Swede
I was as frightened as any man ever before. But when you looked in my eyes and mentioned roast beef, I forgot all of it. 
Me
I as well. We’ll make one more blaze, and then turn in for the night. At sunrise we’ll be off at full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!
Swede
The commonplace feeling introduced by your food mention broke the spell. I shall say no more. 
Me
In some measure it will be a relief for us both to get up and make an excursion into the darkness for more wood. We’ll keep close together, and look among the bushes and along the bank. 

The humming overhead never ceased, but seemed to me to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It was shivery work!

Swede
Look! By my soul! There, in front of the dim glow, something is moving.
Me
  I see it through this veil that hangs before our eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily. It is neither a human figure nor an animal. 
Swede
It’s shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—coiling upon itself like smoke.
Me
It is settling down through the willows.
Swede
Look, by God! It’s coming this way! Oh, o no! Ehh! They’ve found us.

I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed backwards with a crash into the branches. 

But it was the pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me; it caused me to forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were about to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of discovery, yet just in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He himself, he says, actually passed out at the next moment, and that was what saved him.

Swede
I lost consciousness for a moment or two. That’s what saved me. It made me stop thinking about them.
Me
You nearly broke my arm in two.
Swede
That’s what saved you! Between us, we’ve managed to set them off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It’s gone—for the moment!
Me
A wave of hysterical laughter is about to seize me again.

Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we could do, and to bed we went without delay, having first thrown sand on the fire and brought the provision sack and paddle inside the tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped at the end of the tent so that our feet touched it, and the least motion would disturb and wake us.

In case of emergency, too, we again went to bed in our clothes, ready for a sudden start.

It was my firm intention to lie awake all night and watch, but the exhaustion of nerves and body decreed otherwise, and sleep after a while came over me with a welcome blanket of oblivion. The fact that my companion also slept quickened its approach. At first he fidgeted and constantly sat up, asking me if I “heard this” or “heard that.” 

A difficulty in breathing woke me, and I found the blanket over my face. But something else besides the blanket was pressing upon me, and my first thought was that my companion had rolled off his mattress on to my own in his sleep. I called to him and sat up, and at the same moment it came to me that the tent was surrounded. That sound of multitudinous soft pattering was again audible outside, filling the night with horror.

I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, but I missed the sound of his snoring, and also noticed that the flap of the tent was down. This was the unpardonable sin. I crawled out in the darkness to hook it back securely, and it was then for the first time I realized positively that the Swede was not there. He had gone.

I dashed out in a mad run, seized by a dreadful agitation, and the moment I was out I plunged into a sort of torrent of humming that surrounded me completely and came out of every quarter of the heavens at once. It was that same familiar humming—gone mad! A swarm of great invisible bees might have been about me in the air. The sound seemed to thicken the very atmosphere, and breathing was difficult.

But my friend was in danger, and I could not hesitate.

The dawn was just about to break, and a faint whitish light spread upwards over the clouds from a thin strip of clear horizon. No wind stirred. I could just make out the bushes and river beyond, and the pale sandy patches. In my excitement I ran frantically to and fro about the island, calling him by name, shouting at the top of my voice the first words that came into my head. But the willows smothered my voice, and the humming muffled it, so that the sound only traveled a few feet round me. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong, tumbling over roots, and scraping my face as I tore this way and that among the preventing branches.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I came out upon the island’s point and saw a dark figure outlined between the water and the sky. It was the Swede. And already he had one foot in the river! A moment more and he would have taken the plunge.

I threw myself on him, flinging my arms about his waist and dragging him shorewards with all my strength. Of course he struggled furiously, making a noise all the time just like that cursed humming, and using the most outlandish phrases in his anger about “going inside to Them,” and “taking the way of the water and the wind,” and God only knows what more besides, that I tried in vain to recall afterwards, but which turned me sick with horror and amazement as I listened. But in the end I managed to get him into the comparative safety of the tent, and flung him down breathless and cursing, where I held him with one foot until his fit had passed.

I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm, coinciding as it did with the equally abrupt cessation of the humming and pattering outside—I think this was almost the strangest part of the whole business. For he had just opened his eyes and turned his tired face up to me so that the dawn threw a pale light upon it through the doorway, and said, for all the world just like a frightened child:

Swede
My life, old man—it’s my life I owe you. But it’s all over now anyhow. They’ve found a victim in our place!
Me
I feel it, too.
Swede
  River’s falling at last; that’s one good thing.
Me
The humming has stopped too.
Swede
  Everything has stopped, because—
Me
Because they’ve found another victim’? 
Swede!
Exactly. I feel as positive of it as though—as though—I feel quite safe again, I mean.
Me
How do you know?
Swede
Come, I think if we look, we shall find it.
Me
Wait half a  mo-, I’m coming.
Swede
We will need a stick of wood from here! 
Me
What for?
Swede
To poke among the sandy bays and caves and little back-waters.  Here now, to the river banks.
Me
I am right behind you, Swede!
Swede
Ah! Look!

He was pointing with his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and on the sand. It appeared to be caught by some twisted willow roots so that the river could not sweep it away. A few hours before the spot must have been under water.

Swede
See, the victim that made our escape possible! If I can turn it over, umph! There! It is the body of a peasant, and the face was hidden in the sand. 
Me
Clearly the man has been drowned, but a few hours ago, and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour of dawn—at the very time the fit passed.
Swede
We must give it a decent burial, you know.
Me
I suppose so. Poor fellow, poor, poor old man.
Swede
Come along.

Halfway down the bank my companion suddenly stopped and held up his hand in warning; but either my foot slipped, or I had gained too much momentum to halt, for I bumped into him and sent him forward with a sort of leap to save himself. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our feet splashed into the water. And, before anything could be done, we had collided a little heavily against the corpse.

Swede
Oomph, ouch!
Me
Oww! What in the –! It’s them! They are humming inside the corpse, like hornets in the nest!
Swede
We must get away. But the filthy things are leaving him, ascending into the air. It seems we disturbed the rotten creatures at work.

But before either of us had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the grip of the willow roots. 

Swede
We must save the man. He must have a proper burial! Oh dear God!
Me
I saw it! The skin and flesh of the face and chest are indented with small hollows, perfectly formed, quite similar to those beings’ damned sand funnels.
Swede
Their mark! Their awful mark!

And when I turned my eyes again from the dead man’s ghastly face to the river, the current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into mid-stream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.